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Nigerian priest killed after leading Christmas Eve mass as Christians' concerns of insecurity grow

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A 37-year-old Catholic priest, who was shot dead by gunmen while returning home after leading a mass on Christmas Eve in Nigeria, was buried Friday as the country’s Christians continue to express concerns about their insecurity.

Father Luke Mewhenu Adeleke from the Catholic Diocese of Abeokuta in Nigeria’s Ogun State was buried at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Abeokuta, according to Nigeria Catholic Network. The outlet reported that he was driving when “unknown gunmen” fired at him and bullets struck his legs.

The priest lost “a lot of blood and died in his car” in the Obafemi Owode local government area.

The latest murder furthers “the concerns Christian leaders in Africa’s most populous nation have been expressing about insecurity in the country that seems to target followers of Jesus Christ,” writes The Association for Catholic Information in Africa.

While the murder in Ogun took place in southern Nigeria, much of Nigeria’s violence has occurred in the country’s Middle Belt states, where radicalized Fulani herders have been accused of carrying out countless attacks on predominantly Christian farming communities, killing thousands in recent years as limited natural resources have led to increased violence. 

In Nigeria’s northeast, Islamic terror groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province have killed thousands and displaced millions. 

The U.S.-based persecution watchdog group International Christian Concern warns that the Nigerian government “continues to deny any religious motivation behind the attacks and has recently convinced the U.S. Department of State to do the same.”

In November, the Biden administration removed Nigeria from the U.S. State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern,” a designation reserved for the countries that tolerate or engage in some of the world's worst violations of religious freedom. Nigeria was added to the CPC list in December 2020 during the final months of the Trump administration. ICC identified the African country as one of its 2021 “Persecutors of the Year” in a report published last November. 

“Nigeria is one of the deadliest places on Earth for Christians, as 50,000 to 70,000 have been killed since 2000,” the ICC Persecutor of the Year report states.

Watchdog group Open Doors USA ranks Nigeria as the ninth-worst country when it comes to Christian persecution. 

In late November, heavily armed jihadist Fulani herders stormed a village in Plateau state, set fire to over 100 homes and killed 10 Christians, including children aged 4, 6 and 8, and set fire to 100 homes.

David Curry, the CEO of Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, suggested that the exclusion of Nigeria from the list of CPCs was “not only a baffling error” but “likely in direct violation of the International Religious Freedom Act, the law that requires these designations to be made in the first place.”

“Open Doors USA has documented thousands of targeted killings of Nigerian Christians every year for more than a decade,” Curry said.

“In no other country on earth do we see such a sustained level of outright violence directed towards a Christian community, and the situation has only deteriorated over the past 12 months,” Curry stated. “The Nigerian government has stubbornly refused to address this violence. The removal of Nigeria from this list will embolden bad actors and strongly deter efforts to bring peace to the region.”

Critics have warned that the government’s lack of action in the Middle Belt could lead to a religious “genocide” similar to those seen in Darfur or Rwanda. However, the Nigerian government has pushed back on such assertions, claiming violence in the Middle Belt is part of decades-old farmer-herder clashes. 

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